LOOSE ON THE PALOUSEBefore the season we memorably picked the Washington State Cougars and their new coach Tony Bennett to finish 10th in the Pac-10. Instead, the Cougars are 14-2 and ranked 22nd in the nation. What happened? Today in part one of our game preview, we'll look at the numbers in an attempt to explain this resurgence of basketball interest on the Palouse.
The Cougars are essentially playing at the same pace they did under Bennett pere, though they've cranked it up a wee bit. This year they are averaging 63.9 possessions per 40 minutes of play. Last year's team averaged 61.9, and the previous two teams were under 60 possessions per game. Cal's only slightly faster this year at 67 possessions per forty minutes of play, so expect a deliberate pace Thursday night. No surprise there.
So if it's not a big change in philosophy, what accounts for the improved offensive results?
Well, for one, much improved offensive efficiency. The Cougars have always played good enough defense to climb into the 1st division of the Pac-10, but their offense was slow, boring and inefficient. Wazzu had to hope for hot shooting nights for notch what upsets they could claim. This year's squad, by contrast, fields an above-average offense and improved defensive rebounding, while maintaining the Cougs' lock-down perimeter defense.
Some of the offensive improvement is simply due to better shooting - WSU's percentages are 50.4/37.8 as opposed to 46.7/33.2 last year. But just as significant, they're not wasting possessions - WSU is ranked 9th in the nation by Ken Pomeroy in turnover percentage (a simple pace-independent measure of ball security).
It's worth noting that Cal is also very good here - the Bears are ranked 13th in the country in turnover percentage. In fact, Cal's numbers compare very favorably to Wazzu on the offensive end:
2 pt FG - WSU 50.4%, Cal 49.3%So why are the Cougars thought to be a better team than Cal? They play typical Cougar defense, which historically has been even stingier than typical Golden Bear defense. In particular, the Cougs are doing a better job of keeping opponents off the offensive glass than Cal (or previous Cougar teams); opponents get offensive boards only 28% of the time - placing the Cougars 22nd in the nation.
3 pt FG - WSU 33.2%, Cal 38.5%
Turnover % - WSU 16.9%, Cal 17.4 % (both excellent)
Offensive Rebounding % - WSU 27.5%, Cal 26.3% (both lousy)
FTM/FGA - WSU - 23.2%, Cal - 22.2% (neither team gets to the line)
Overall Efficiency - WSU 87th, Cal 78th
WSU also leads the nation in a KenPomStat known as Assists/Field Goals Made - this suggests that the Cougars are good at disrupting an opponents' offensive flow and tend to force teams to score with isolation and dribble drive. An examination of a couple WSU games confirms this - they're not UCLA, but they are certainly active on defense in passing lanes.
We'll look at individual matchups tomorrow. Also look for our first Q&A of the hoops season with Udub Dish on Friday.